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As Christians Flee Some Countries, Lebanese Numbers Swell

26 Dec 2014 – By Brooke Anderson

SED EL BOUSHRIEH, Lebanon (CNS) — Aramaic, Syriac and different Arabic dialects from Iraq and eastern Syria can be heard on the narrow hilly streets of Sed El Boushrieh. Strings of Christmas lights adorn neighborhood churches and hang from balconies of apartments, whose residents many never return to their own homes in Iraq and Syria.

The religiously mixed village, once a vast pine forest just north of Beirut, has long been a place of refuge for the region’s Christian minorities fleeing war. In late 2014 it has saw a rapid increase in arrivals as the Islamic State group took over vast parts of Iraq and Syria.

As the sanctuaries of Iraqi and Syrian churches steadily empty, those of their refuge in Lebanon become more crowded by the week. Some churches in the area offer two services at different times to accommodate the growing influx of refugees.

For several months, the Assyrian Church of the East, which holds its Sunday service at 9 a.m., hosted a Syriac Catholic congregation at 11 a.m., until the Catholic parishioners found their own space.

In the days before Christmas, worshippers packed into neighborhood churches, eager to partake in familiar festivities.

Older residents recalled their grandparents’ stories of migration to the area as a result of Ottoman overthrow of Mamluk-run Iraq, then the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and, more recently, the successive Iraqi wars, starting in the early 1980’s. The refugees tended to eventually return home from Lebanon.

The difference these days, said Assyrian Father Sargon Zomaya, is that these new refugees, unlike their predecessors, have lost hope that they will one day return.

“Now there’s no hope,” said Father Zomaya, who came from northeastern Syria 20 years ago to study in Lebanon. “All of the Christian refugees want to go to Europe.”

As foreigners, the refugees are limited to working odd jobs for low wages, a temporary but unsustainable solution.

“They continue to come every day, mainly from ISIS-controlled areas,” Father Zomaya said. “But it’s becoming more difficult. Lebanon is feeling the strain.”

The U.N. refugee agency says Lebanon, a country of 4 million about 70 percent as big as Connecticut, has about 1.5 million additional refugees.

Many of the new Iraqi and Syrian arrivals are second- or third-time refugees, for example, Iraqis who sought refuge in Syria following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 or who became internally displaced and are now fleeing the increasing violence in what were once relatively safe havens.

Stephene Izhak, 21, a Syriac Catholic originally from Baghdad, first fled his city in 2008 for Tel Kaif, near Mosul, where he stayed until late October. He left after Islamic State militants overtook the area and robbed his family, taking all their possessions, including their mobile phones, causing them to lose contact. He fled on his own with little more than the clothes on his back to Dohuk, Iraq, where he lived in a church for two months. From there, he took an airplane from Erbil to Beirut. He has not seen his family since.

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Tags: Syria Iraq Lebanon Refugees Violence against Christians